A Russian man convicted of spying for Britain has mysteriously been taken ill due to an ‘unknown substance’ – I wonder who could be responsible?
Of course one can’t assume at this point, and the Russians will express bafflement as to why they’re being accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. No doubt the London Embassy’s perky Twitter feed will make light of western paranoia in that surreal way international politics is conducted these days.
But then the Russians are suspected of 14 assassinations on British soil, the most bizarre case involving the expert who discovered the poison that killed Alexander Litvinenko, who himself died after apparently ‘stabbing himself repeatedly with two knives months after a trip to Russia’.
No doubt other prominent critics of Putin will accidentally brutally stab themselves in the stomach while shaving in future, in that rather theatrical way the Russians like. But then the theatre obviously works. The subject of Russia has a habit of bringing out hysteria in westerners. We blame it for every calamity befalling western liberalism, from Brexit to Trump to, inevitably, the Italian election. As if populism wasn’t the product of a growing chasm between rulers and ruled growing across western democracies, but had to be attributed to some mysterious, sinister foreign power.
In reality, western paranoia only adds mystique to Putin as a brilliant strategist pulling the world’s strings, when in reality Russia is a weak, fading power living off the past; its economy is a wreck and the country is riddled with social problems, not the least demographic decline. (For all its traditionalist veneer, Russia's homicide and abortion rates are off the scale in European terms.) The amount Russia spends interfering in western votes is tiny and, most likely, ineffective, beyond winding up the liberal commentariat (which, it could be argued, is money well spent). If you want to be paranoid about a rising power from another civilisation, China is definitely your better bet.
And yet the Russians appear to feel quite free to murder people on British soil and we seem to allow them to do so. If they are indeed thought responsible this time, then refusing to send British representatives to the World Cup is the very least we can do, as the Foreign Secretary has threatened. Sure, missing out on the chance to meet Boris Johnson might not be the greatest deterrent but it would at least send the small signal that we now regard Russia as a hostile power. Otherwise, to use the language of some of their western sympathisers, the Russians appear to be cucking us.